Swallow Hill Music starting to buzz again

Aengus Finnan assumes role as president and CEO of the nonprofit

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Aengus Finnan planned to relax for a while after eight years of serving as executive director of the Folk Alliance International, an organization based in Kansas City, Mo.

He was planning to take some time off for travel and to work on a book he has in mind.

Then along came Denver’s Swallow Hill Music, a nonprofit music organization founded in 1979 that hosts a variety of programs, including a music school, live music concerts and community outreach such as music therapy, enrichment and early childhood education.

“I was not planning to apply for anything after leaving Folk Alliance,” said Finnan, 50. But, “the mission of Swallow Hill, its legacy, its programs in place, and the passion and resilience of the staff - all of that - and the aspirations of the board, it really dovetailed with what I’m passionate about.”

Swallow Hill Music, 71 E. Yale Ave., recently hired Finnan to serve as president and CEO after a lengthy search to replace Paul Lhevine, who left in fall 2021.

Born in Ireland, Finnan arrives as Swallow Hill aims to make a big push forward — not just in the Denver metro area, but also beyond the city’s limits — hoping to attract more people to concerts, classes, etc.

As with other institutions, the pandemic hit hard, with membership dropping from about 2,000 down to about 900 today. Swallow Hill intends to try to win back many of those members.

“(Our job is) to build upon the musical pillars at Swallow Hill — education, outreach, concerts — and to start looking at it as a cultural hub,” Finnan said. “The venue can be a meeting place, a storytelling place that goes beyond the musical programs. There’s an opportunity for that type of extension, which includes audience development.”

Finnan’s background includes producing three albums and, years ago, joining a band onstage at Swallow Hill.

“I’ve had amazing opportunities to play in church basements, coffee houses and the Kennedy Center,” he said. “It’s a hard way to make a living. I spent enough time sleeping in the van to understand what folk musicians face.”

Finnan has spent about 20 years working in the administrative side, focusing on governance and building cohesive teams, he said.

“I see nothing but exciting potential for Swallow Hill and the community that surrounds it and Denver at large,” Finnan said.

Finnan impresed the Swallow Hill community as he met the staff and members.

“There was no question in my mind he would be our next leader,” said Jessy Clark, Swallow Hill’s COO. “When he walked into the building, you could feel Swallow Hill’s ethos dripping off of him. He’s very familiar with music communities all over the United States and beyond. Aengus gets Swallow Hill and understands its history.”

Swallow Hill board chair Walt DeHaven had similar thoughts.

“We looked far and wide — these people aren’t easy to come by,” DeHaven said. “Aengus just stood out. He knows what we do and that Swallow Hill wants to expand it in a big way. His background in music is extensive, coupled with his understanding (of) business.”

Starting to buzz again

Swallow Hill boasts the nation’s second-largest music school, behind Chicago. It offers lessons on many different instruments — ranging from conventional instruments such as guitar and piano, to some unorthodox instruments and styles like clawhammer banjo. Swallow Hill’s instructors teach a wide variety of genres, including Americana and roots, bluegrass, folk, world music, jazz, blues, rock, country and pop.

“Our classrooms are starting to buzz again and you see students and teachers in the hallways,” said Casey Lea Cormier, who teaches guitar, bass and ukulele and has been on the Swallow Hill faculty for nine years. “The community aspect is really amazing. What Swallow Hill does is create an environment of musical instruction in a group setting for adults and kids.”

Overall, Swallow Hill draws more than 165,000 people annually through its school, programming and live music concerts. Just in the first quarter of this year, Swallow Hill made more than 20,000 musical connections through its Community Outreach Programs. One of these programs is Little Swallows, which brings music education to children ages 3 and 4 who may not have access to music programs in their schools.

Jarett Mason is one of Swallow Hill’s instructors, running group classes on guitars and mandolin, as well as guiding an ensemble group.

“The reward I get out of teaching (at Swallow Hill) is the sense of community that’s based in music,” Mason said. “I really enjoy seeing people come together and be united by music. Also, seeing people develop new skills later in life. The majority of my students are adults, most of them are retired. This keeps their minds sharp.”

Jen Hitt started teaching voice and folk ensemble at Swallow Hill in 2018. She also guides the Women of Folk group.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity for me to connect with my community,” Hitt said. “Class numbers are getting bigger and bigger every session.”

Parker resident Jean Excell, a Women of Folk participant, has been a Swallow Hill student for four years, taking classes in guitar, bass and harmonica.

“It’s worth it,” Excell said of the commute from Parker to Swallow Hill. Swallow Hill has “really advanced my guitar playing and my understanding of music theory. I think it’s excellent — they did a really good job of navigating the pandemic and switching to online courses. Now that we’re back full time, it’s been really outstanding.”

Swallow Hill Music, Denver, Aengus Finnan

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